Murphy Strikes


On April 29, 2002, the newly confirmed NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe planted a time bomb in the International Space Station program.  Coming to NASA from the US Office of Management and Budget, where he was Deputy Director, Mr. O’Keefe had a reputation as a bean counter and penny pincher.  Mr. O’Keefe publicly joked that he was not smart enough to be NASA Administrator.  But he knew the ISS program needed political capital in the US political arena.  Providing a big, flashy cut in the ISS program would cement O’Keefe’s position as NASA Administrator and aid in the annual budget fights in the US Congress.  One part of the ISS program caught his attention: the plan to develop a US “lifeboat” for the ISS.  Since the Russian Soyuz could fulfill that job – and the Russians were providing that service as part of their initial contribution to the international partnership – the Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV or X-38) became an easy cut.  So on April 29, the total dependence on the Soyuz for the life of the ISS program was established by NASA fiat, with virtually no consultation with the other ISS partners.

Flash forward nearly a decade: with the ISS construction completed, the incredibly capable but ever risky NASA Space Shuttle is retired.  Not that the Shuttle could have replaced the Soyuz; Shuttle stays at the ISS were limited to about two weeks duration, not the six or more months an expedition crew stays aboard.  The logistics is not the problem: cargo and logistical resupply can be accommodated by the European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), two new cargo vehicles under development by the US commercial space industry – the Orbital Science Corporation Cygnus cargo vehicle launched on their Taurus–II launch vehicle, and the Space Exploration Technology’s Dragon capsule launched on their Falcon 9 rocket.  And, of course, the old reliable Russian Progress cargo vehicle. 

The Progress rides the same basic rocket as the Soyuz spacecraft.  Soyuz is now the only way to transport human beings to and from the ISS.  New spacecraft are being developed to provide future human transportation to the ISS.  Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada are competing for US government development funds to build human transportation vehicles within the next 5 years.

But Mr. Murphy, the author if the law that states “if anything can go wrong, it will,” struck on August 24, just one month after the Shuttle was retired.  The third stage of the Russian launch vehicle suffered a critical failure and the 44th Progress resupply vehicle to the ISS broke up and crashed in eastern Russia.  A state commission has concluded that the failure was a random one and that reinspections of the existing launch vehicles could clear them for early flight.  Time will tell, the Russians know their business well and I expect them to be successful. 

The implication is clear.  The O’Keefe time bomb is on short fuse.  If the Soyuz cannot fly safely, then the ISS will lose its human crew – and its reason for existence.  Until there is another craft that can not only carry human beings back and forth from the ISS but also stay there with them for six months as a life boat, the ISS is on shaky footing.  Not that the Russians are unreliable or their launchers are not dependable – quite the opposite.   But in the world of space flight, random failures do occur.  Even if the shuttle were still in service to carry human beings to the ISS, that would not be sufficient to keep the ISS staffed; the shuttle could only stay in flight for two to three weeks – not the six months required for the lifeboat function.  When will the Dragon, the Dreamchaser, or the CST-100 be ready to carry people and serve as a lifeboat?  Not soon enough. 

We could have really used that CRV.  It might even have become the basis of a mini-shuttle crew transport vehicle.  But no; it was eliminated for the most transient and banal of reasons.  The old adage against being “penny wise and pound foolish” has struck the human space effort once again. 

Or more to the point; every good space designer knows that a system with a critical single point failure is not a good system.  Reliability is key, but even then, having redundancy is the standard practice for a truly resilient system.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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23 Responses to Murphy Strikes

  1. Beth Webber says:

    “every good space designer knows that a system with a critical single point failure is not a good system.”

    This is true in any engineering design. Our Russian partners will get the Soyuz flying, and we will work our way through this problem. What is frustrating is that through short-sightedness we created this problem in the first place. Unfortunately, the space program is not the only place this kind of short-sightedness happens.


  2. Charley S McCue says:

    And this week, the X-37c design has been bandied about as a vehicle to go to ISS.

    If memory serves, at least one orbiter was outfitted with a modified power coupler to utilize the ISS power grid and extend it’s time with the station. That would save consumables for the fuel cells. What would be the limiting factor after that? Maybe thirty days or so max?

    I hope you are correct that Russia can right their boat. With the string of problems from the bad Soyuz reentries with the various booster problems like overfilling stages and programming flight systems wrong, it seems like they have much more than just one booster failure to overcome.

    • Rocket scientist says:

      Both Discovery and Endeavour were outfitted with the space station power transfer mods. It did extend the duration of time docked for the orbiters. I believe that LiOH canisters in the orbiter’s ECLSS became the driver on how long they could stay in orbit, and not to mention they never actually powered the fuel cells down as they were afraid of the water freezing and losing restart capabilities. UTC stated they never said the powerplants could be turned off and restarted in space…go figure.

    • waynehale says:

      LiOH and other factors limited mission duration. We did several studies of the max duration an orbiter could stay at the ISS drawing power from the ISS solar arrays; the answer as I recall was about 28 days. Minimal boiloff from the PRSD tanks over time would just leave enough cryogenics to power the orbiter through entry at that duration. Of course we never really stayed that long but we did extend many docked missions by drawing power from the ISS and reducing the draw on the cryo tanks which powered the orbiter’s fuel cells. We actually powered down a fuel cell or two as engineering test but my memory is fuzzy as to whether this became a standard practice while docked at the ISS.

  3. Steve Pemberton says:

    Ironically one of the astronauts currently onboard ISS is former X-38 Flight Test Engineer Michael Fossum. During the uncertain period immediately after the Progress accident, abandoning ISS was a possibility that wasn’t being ruled out. Fossum perhaps thought about the impact of the cancellation of the program that he had been involved in, since it took away some options that might have been very helpful in that type of a situation.

    Highlighted by the recent incident is the fact that Soyuz only makes for a good CRV eleven or so months out of the year. It seems that landing a Soyuz during the Kazakhstan winter is less safe due to shorter daylight hours and possible blizzard conditions. Having a second vehicle like the X-38 available would have provided mission controllers some additional choices in terms of when and where a crew could be safely returned to Earth in an emergency.

  4. Coastal Ron says:

    I do agree with Wayne’s analysis, and the only observation I have may seem a little odd.

    Given the history of government transportation systems stifling, not encouraging, commercial alternatives, in the long run we may be better off with skipping directly to the commercial crew efforts CCDev is helping.

    I say that because if the X-38 would have become operational, maybe the Commercial Crew program would never have been funded, since the X-38 would have been filling that role. However I wouldn’t want to lose the ISS over that, so I hope the next Soyuz launch is successful, and the CCDev participants have good success with their own vehicles.

  5. Alan says:

    waynehale says:
    August 19, 2011 at 12:54 am

    “Stop. Just stop. This is not about about fixing blame. It is about where do we go from here. I will not allow any more comments of this nature on this blog.”

    …You should live by your own words, Wayne…..

  6. Gary Williams says:

    There isn’t any blame here in this post it’s a lesson in not relying on a single space vehicle to do all the work for you.

    I was always under the impression that the CRV was always going to be scaled up to carry crew to the ISS and sit there for 6 months before returning for an Edwards AFB landing and that the shuttle would fly twice a year carrying cargo and replacement parts on the Logstics carriers. What a nice setup that would have been – a method to get to the ISS, the shuttle for both replacement parts and downmass but it seems that the budget cuts were more important. A shame because the ISS could have had some amazing capabilities with the CRV and shuttle flying.

  7. Alan says:

    “There isn’t any blame here in this post it’s a lesson in not relying on a single space vehicle to do all the work for you.”

    Then you need to get your reading glasses out …

    “Providing a big, flashy cut in the ISS program would cement O’Keefe’s position as NASA Administrator and aid in the annual budget fights in the US Congress. “…

    “The implication is clear. The O’Keefe time bomb is on short fuse. “…

    That’s pretty much assigning blame.

    But Wayne fails to mention the all-or-nothing approach of another NASA Administrator – Griffin – which is part of reason why we are in the current situation – and yes, O’Keefe is due some of the blame. Griffin seems to be a sacred cow for Wayne, any criticism or assignation of a portion of the current problem to Griffin is considered beyond the pale.

    • “Griffin seems to be a sacred cow..”. IMHO, I don’t see that Wayne has any sacred cows.

      In my case, I’m interested in why you dislike Griffin so much. Can we swap email addresses or something to discuss it?

  8. Wayne,

    You have your facts slightly wrong. NASA delivered a multi-billion dollar cost overrun on ISS to President-elect George Bush in December 2000. The initial budget proposal by the new Administration — that March or April of 2001 — killed the CRV. At this point Sean O’Keefe was the Deputy Director of OMB for Management (not Budget). He may not have been involved in the decision at all. I don’t know how quickly X-38 was shut down, but it was fairly soon.

    Whose “fault” was this? Arguably, the people at JSC who caused the cost overruns. Altho I’m sure people will blame Bush43 or former OMB staff for the decision.

    Jim Muncy

    • waynehale says:

      Interesting Jim – you would know. However, that is not how it played out in the public arena; it was widely seen as an O’Keefe decision. If it truly wasn’t then I apologize. As far as cost overruns on the ISS; that is the topic of another blog about integrity and how the political process in Washington can inhibit truth telling. Another day.

    • nooneofconsequence says:

      Yes it was in reaction to JSC’s budget overrun. Bringing in O’Keefe was to get (among others) JSC under control.

      But if you don’t have regard for ISS continuation, all you need is Soyuz til you de-orbit it. So as a cost containment maneuver it makes sense.

      And if you need anything more, toss the program to a contractor for a follow-on vehicle. After all, you can’t trust those JSC guys.

      So here’s what got lost – the ability for NASA to a) have an indigenous HSF capability independent of Shuttle – which we already knew we needed, and b) retain the NASA skill set of HSF new vehicle design, both for about $50M.

      No matter which way we went forward following this point, had we completed X-38, the benefit of both of these would have accrued more that $2.5B of lost budget paid out in future programs, plus retain US access to HSF spaceflight indefinitely.

      Yes those in the Bush administration were too narrow minded to consider the big picture. Don’t think O’Keefe was against that point. However, even a year later a different series of events. And no “Plan B”. Or retaining of design skills … when you need it.

      Guess it must of been a big, deep mystery, unfathomable to the trained political eye.

      Yeah, sure.

  9. Bill says:

    No such thing as random failure. If you believe in random failures, you must also accept random successes.

  10. Rob Coppinger says:

    CRV was to be transported to ISS by Shuttle so I can’t see how it could help now. It would have been sidelined long ago for the much needed final logistics missions. I think an evolved CRV proposal would have suffered the same fate as OSP.

  11. Kelly Starks says:

    Just a nit, but unless I missed something – a Crew Rescue Vehicle wouldn’t have helped unless you were going to: automatically launch empty ones to dock to the ISS, after you auto de-orbit and destroy the empty ones reaching its service life on the ISS. See when whatever lifeboat you use (CSV or Souyz), when it reaches its time limit, its use it or throw it away. So with no crew launch capacity, you could keep the same crew up there indefinitely ( but you wouldn’t due to the medical risks) but the Crew Rescue Vehicle, like the Soyuz, has a service life limit.

    Now if the Crew Rescue Vehicle, becomes a mini crew shuttle (like a X-37C) then you have another way to get people up and down – but as far as I know that’s not what the Crew Rescue Vehicle was going to be?

    Bottom line: O’Keefe won his gamble that we could do without aCrew Rescue Vehicle for as long as the shuttle was available. By now though, its a moot point without a shuttle.

  12. P. Savio says:

    If a Soyuz crashes on the way down the remaining crew on the ISS could be stuck on the ISS for many months or even years while the problem is determined and fixed and tested. I wonder what contingency plan NASA has for that? Send up a Dragon Cargo Capsule and tell the Astronauts to hop in and hang on for the ride down hill……?

    • Ben says:

      P. Savio – they wouldn’t even have to do that. They’d just have to grab onto a nearby heat-shield equipped Falcon 9 second stage and ride it to a nice controlled landing on the south lawn of the White House.

  13. PHILLIP says:

    But why not leave the astronauts without a way off the station??? There is no way off a plane in flight???? When the next re-entry vehicle is ready..6 months or a year–who cares??? If the astronauts cannot get out off ISS in an emergency–sorry–so sad too bad. 😦 Do we not have the Right stuff to take risks??? People cannot evacuate Antarctica any time of year–why are astronauts different???

    We need to be willing to take risks….

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